Jul 29, 2023
For some survivors of childhood sexual abuse, ‘healing doesn’t mean it’s gone’
The bad days aren’t as bad as they used to be for Frank Schindler. He has a good life now. He’s married to Betsy Schindler, a woman he adores. They have a nervous orange tabby cat named Leo and live
The bad days aren’t as bad as they used to be for Frank Schindler.
He has a good life now. He’s married to Betsy Schindler, a woman he adores. They have a nervous orange tabby cat named Leo and live in a cozy Canton row home, a few minutes’ walk from the water. He has a job he cares about and friends who care about him.
But there are still days when the darkness creeps back in.
Dread without any discernible cause grips his chest. The urges to self-harm resurface. In his mind, he returns to his kindergarten classroom, on the second floor of a New York City convent, across the street from the church his family attended. There had to be a reason why the priest picked him out of all the other children in his classroom, he tells himself. The man must have seen something in him that was really bad.
Frank knows this is ludicrous. He looks at photos of himself from when he was a smiley, 5-year-old boy with bright blue eyes and dark, slicked back hair. He’s wearing a sweater in one picture, playing and squinting at the camera. He’s praying in front of a manger scene in another.
“I don’t look terribly bad,” he thinks to himself.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse — which studies estimate include as many as 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys — are more likely to have depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and struggle with substance use disorder, suicidal ideation, self-harm and disordered eating. They’re more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors and develop chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome and certain cancers.
Research shows that the abuse they experienced likely altered their developing brains on the molecular level.
America has gotten better at taking care of its children in the last 50 years. Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act in 1974, putting federal dollars toward preventing, identifying and treating child abuse. About a decade after that, Alabama created the nation’s first child advocacy center in Huntsville, where social workers, law enforcement officers, doctors, prosecutors and victim advocates work together to support kids who have been abused. There are now more than 900 of these centers around the country, including two dozen in Maryland.
After decades of research, experts know it’s possible to protect children from experiencing lifelong effects from their abuse. If children tell someone about what happened to them — and they’re believed — doctors can examine them from head-to-toe to make sure they weren’t harmed physically, said Teresa Huizar, CEO of the National Children’s Alliance, which oversees the country’s child advocacy centers. A therapist can identify any trauma symptoms they’re experiencing and give them coping strategies. Adults can help them understand that what happened wasn’t their fault — no matter what their abuser told them.
“Our goal with these kids, ultimately, is to help them go back to their job of being kids,” Huizar said. “What happened to them certainly was a terrible thing, but it doesn’t have to define the entirety of their life or their adulthood.”
But most children who are sexually abused don’t tell anyone. A study of more than 1,000 survivors found that the average age survivors disclose what happened to them is 52. And while there are national and local organizations that help adult survivors — offering legal advice and peer support groups — there are no child advocacy centers for grown-ups.
[ Catholic Church abuse in Maryland: Coverage from The Baltimore Sun ]
The country needs to do more to prevent child sexual abuse and support adult survivors, said Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Child advocacy centers don’t get enough funding and the country hasn’t done much to support survivors financially, even though research shows they earn less, on average, compared to people who weren’t sexually abused when they were children.
“We’re doing more now than we ever have in the history of this country,” Letourneau said, “and we just need to keep doing more.”
But to offer help to adult survivors, advocates and therapists first have to be able to reach them — something that’s hard to do, said David Lorenz, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and Maryland’s support group leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
A report released in April by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office on child sex abuse and torture that took place in Baltimore’s Catholic archdiocese included accounts involving more than 600 children and young adults. But typically, only about five or 10 people come to SNAP’s monthly support group meeting, Lorenz said.
“They’re doing everything they can to not remember it,” he said. “To not relive it, not think about it, not do anything about it. ‘I want that thing to go away. I will take drugs. I will take alcohol. I will do whatever I can to make that not be part of my life.’”
Lorenz understands. Before he turned 33, he hadn’t even told his wife that when he was a kid, he was sexually abused by a priest at his family’s church in Kentucky. People rarely talked about child abuse when he was growing up, Lorenz said. Child advocacy centers didn’t exist. Molesters were thought to be “guys in trench coats,” not clergy or relatives.
“That’s been a real sea change in society, and that’s been really good,” Lorenz said. “But what’s been missed is, what about the kids who were abused before that sea change happened?”
[ Resources on how to process Baltimore Catholic Church sexual abuse report ]
In her late 20s, Betsy Schindler told her boyfriend and her best friend that she had been sexually abused as a child. It was the first time she had told anyone besides her therapist, and she only spoke about it in the vaguest of terms.
There was no need to tell anyone else, she thought. She’d already dealt with the abuse. She had found a psychiatrist she liked after dropping out of college to be hospitalized for a severe eating disorder, and had continued to see him for several years. She also started medication. Plus, the family member who had abused her from ages 5 to 12 had died.
But that’s not how healing works, she said. Something in the news — Anita Hill being questioned ruthlessly by a committee of 14 white men about her sexual harassment allegations against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, people worrying about the reputation of Penn State University’s football team after assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of serial child sexual abuse — would send her reeling.
Betsy started telling her family members and other close friends about the abuse when she turned 30. Talking more openly about it, and having people believe her, was “huge,” she said.
Frank, her husband, agrees. It took him until he was in his 40s to fill in the gaps of his fragmented memories and realize he had been sexually abused in kindergarten. Before then, he didn’t understand why he struggled with such severe depression. He tried therapy many times, but his mental health worsened. It was only when he found the right professional that he started to remember what had happened.
“I was on the verge of suicide — like, 3 feet away from stepping in front of a truck — and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it one more try,’” he said. “Fortunately, that worked.”
Frank Schindler holds a kintsugi bowl given to him by his wife, Betsy, this year. The product of a Japanese craft of repairing broken pottery with gold symbolizes healing for them, as well as how something once broken can become beautiful. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)
Another survivor was also well into adulthood when she realized what she’d experienced at the hands of multiple priests while growing up in Baltimore was sexual abuse. She’d always known something was wrong, but she couldn’t pinpoint the cause of her depression or anxiety attacks, which kept her from leaving her house or taking phone calls in her early 20s.
The Baltimore Sun is withholding the woman’s name because it doesn’t name people who say they were sexually abused if they don’t want to be identified.
The woman’s abuser started grooming her when she was about 7 years old, she said. The priest isolated her from her family and friends and told her that nobody cared about her or wanted her. Her parents had four other children — they wouldn’t miss her if something happened to her. By the time the abuse ended when she was 23, she thought it was normal. She felt alone.
From the time she was little, she’s had irritable bowel syndrome. When she entered high school, her stomach problems got so bad that she kept a bottle of Pepto-Bismol in her pocket. As she got older, the cramping and spasming became debilitating. When her colon twisted last winter, she had surgery to fix it. Later, scar tissue from the procedure blocked her small intestine. By the time she called an ambulance for help, her vomit was black.
“I’m so used to, ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine. If I ignore it, it’ll go away,’ or, ‘It doesn’t matter’ or, ‘I can’t ask for help,’” she said.
The survivor, 71, also can be triggered by current events. After watching shouting, angry men flood the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, she had an IBS flare-up that lasted for two months. After decades of experiencing acid reflux, she’s at risk of developing esophageal cancer.
She sometimes experiences flashbacks and, when she’s under stress, dissociates — experiencing a feeling of being disconnected from her thoughts, emotions, memories and sense of identity. It’s how her brain learned to protect her when she was little.
But her physical symptoms are more manageable now, the survivor said. She started a support group for adult survivors of childhood abuse five and a half years ago, where she’s learning how to identify her emotions and listen to them. She supports others in the group, comforting them when they worry they waited too long to address their abuse.
“Some people have trouble with addiction, prostitution, suicide. People start their lives in such a deep hole, they just never manage to get out,” she said. “I consider myself very lucky to be where I am. And that’s why I guess I’m accepting of the difficulties that I have now. Because overall, I’m feeling pretty good.”
Frank also found comfort in a support group — one run by the Maryland SNAP chapter. Even after remembering the abuse, he struggled to accept that it happened. He’d often minimize it, both to himself and to Betsy.
Attending his first SNAP support group meeting, held at the organization’s annual conference, was a turning point. It was the first time he described what happened to him in any kind of detail. After the meeting ended, he went upstairs to meet Betsy.
“You know,” he told her, “I’ve been saying for a long time that this was no big deal. I just realized this is a big deal. This was really huge.”
Even though Betsy wasn’t abused by a clergy member, she finds support among SNAP’s members. She and Frank were involved in the push to get the Child Victims Act passed by the General Assembly this year, opening the door for adults who were sexually abused as children to sue their abusers.
Frank Schindler, right, a church abuse survivor, speaks at a news conference as fellow survivors Teresa Lancaster, left, and David Lorenz, middle, listen. (Lloyd Fox)
Today, Betsy works at TurnAround, a rape crisis center for Baltimore County and City, where she treats sexual abuse and assault survivors. Like Frank, she has days where she finds herself thinking that her abuse was her fault. Bad memories surface, and she spends the day feeling anxious and depressed.
But her worst days now are “paradise” compared to what they used to be, she said.
“That’s what I think some people don’t understand. Healing doesn’t mean it’s gone. But healing is learning to accept it’s just one part of your life. There are other parts of your life that can be lived and can be enjoyed. You don’t have to have a terrible life because this happened to you.”
Betsy and Frank love their neighborhood, which is full of kind people who look after one another. They find joy in their friends, in yoga, music, cooking and their cat, who Frank talks to in a baby voice. Most of all, they are happy to have one another.
“Without going and being too overdramatic,” Frank said, “I just felt the reason relationships have been so difficult is that I was just a totally unlovable person that was damaged, and no one wanted to be part of that.”
But he found someone who was “crazy” enough to be with him, he said. He looked over at Betsy as she laughed with him.
“The acceptance and the love and the appreciation ... ” he started.
“We’re very fortunate,” Betsy said, smiling at him.
Frank and Betsy Schindler of Canton, who have been married 21 years, are both survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Frank, a psychologist, was abused at age 5 by a priest, and Betsy, a therapist, was abused by a family member from ages 5 to 12. They say the abuse still exacts a toll on their lives, though their perspective on it has evolved over the years. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)
Their fellow abuse survivor doesn’t have children. She never married and said that at her age, that’s not an aspiration for her. But she struggles with feelings of isolation, half a century after her abuse ended. She’d like to find a group of friends, people she could spend time with and talk to.
Today, she lives in a light blue house with dark blue shutters. She has a black cat she adopted from the Maryland SPCA. Her back porch is filled with potted plants, and her front lawn is filled with flowers.
“The most important thing that I can say about myself is that I now have hope,” she said. “I know that the worst is over. I haven’t given up. I’m still willing to keep hanging in there and try.”
It was quiet on a recent afternoon, as the hot sun baked the vegetables growing in her backyard garden. But at dusk, she said, the air is filled with birdsong. She likes to hear the gray little catbirds trilling to one another.
“It’s like they’re all calling each other home,” she said softly.
If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide or are in emotional distress, call or text 988.
There are support groups and other resources for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Visit snapnetwork.org/maryland to reach David Lorenz. Email [email protected] to participate in a support group for adult survivors that meets Thursdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Visit mcasa.org for additional resources and free legal advice. zeroabuseproject.org has free chat groups and forums.